Postcards from Saudi Arabia

Those Crazy Shababs and Their Driving Machines.

Shababs are gregarious young Saudi men who usually travel in groups, often hand in hand, and act with all the outgoing goofiness one would expect from males just emerging from their teenage years. Most of them would simply stop to gape at us, or do dangerous double takes in their cars while passing on the shoulder. Sometimes they would wave us over to invite us to lunch. Without anything better to do, the shababs drive anywhere and everywhere, recklessly, passing on shoulders and into oncoming traffic. There was also this additional shabab curiosity: While camping in the desert, they point their cars toward the highway, jack them up, and meticulously construct stone walls in the space beneath the ground and the chassis, a chore that must take hours. We drove for what seemed like miles down a highway flanked by these autos, which weren’t muscle cars or sleek cruisers—most were Hondas or Toyotas or solid middle-class Fords. When it was time to go, the shababs would dismantle the walls, lower their cars, and drive away. At the last car in the line, we stopped and asked a group of young men sitting in the shade of their tent what purpose these structures served and why they built them. They shrugged and said, “Why not?” Art for art’s sake, I guess.

Separate but Equal.

Shababs spend hours looking for ways to waste time, primarily due to the fact that they cannot hang out with women of their own age. Mixed company is unheard of in Saudi Arabia; a man may mingle only with his wife or the women of his family. The ways in which these restrictions play out in the culture left me wholly confused and feeling battered. Restaurants, for instance, have a strict segregation policy. “Bachelors” (men by themselves or with other men) eat in well-lit dining areas, with waiters at their beck and call. Women with children or men with their wives, daughters, aunts, etc., in tow are relegated to the “family” section, which is usually upstairs, generally windowless, and, in a number of places we ate, without air-conditioning, sanitation, or table service. Once, after a grueling drive maneuvering the crazy back roads from Habala to Abha and getting lost repeatedly—we had a pair of hungry children and a driver incensed by the standard recklessness of Saudi motorists—we stopped for a bite at a pleasant-looking restaurant. It seemed clean, smelled good, and didn’t have the usual “Bachelors” and “Family” signs out front. Turns out the place was a bachelors-only establishment—“But you can eat in your car!” the proprietor told us with a smile.

Then there’s the fact that nearly all women are covered from head to toe in black abayas. Perhaps miffed at my constant disapproval, Reem once asked me, “Who knows how God wants you to dress?” Indeed, no Saudis I talked with, including women, complained about this custom. It seemed to be an issue mainly for Americans. Reem’s aunt groused about Oprah. “They have a Saudi woman beaten on one show,” she said between smokes on a hubble-bubble pipe (which resembled a hookah), “and that woman becomes all of Saudi. It’s horrible what happens to her, yes, but she’s not a typical Saudi woman. And look: Oprah always has abused women as guests on her show, from her own country, three hundred days a year! But that’s not America?”

Wa ’Alaykum As–Salam.

Maybe I’m spending too much time watching Aljazeera, reading Arab News, and plodding through Robert Fisk’s monumental (and monumentally depressing) The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, but after three weeks, I still couldn’t sleep. Back in the United States, it’s easy enough to ignore the Middle East crisis, but over here, it’s as acute as the ceaseless blowing of the sand. Tina, a fellow expat and friend of our hosts, is married to a Lebanese man. Two days before Israel began shelling her husband’s home country, he left Saudi with his wife and family to spend a month in Lebanon. A short time later, the Beirut airport was reduced to rubble, bridges were destroyed, and the highways were pitted with bomb craters and unsafe to drive. To make matters even more stressful, Reem has a sister who lives in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and desperate calls were made to find out if she had been affected by the flooding resulting from India’s devastating monsoons. Then, less than a week later, terrorist bombings in Mumbai killed nearly two hundred people there. Thankfully, Reem’s sister was safe in both instances. Meanwhile, children in the compound played while jet fighters screamed overhead—the Royal Saudi Air Force flexing its muscles, and public evidence of the king’s benevolence. I realized that back home in the Twin Cities, signs of an American military presence are rare indeed, and I tend to skip over the world news on my way to the sports page. Each day in Saudi, I checked the Star Tribune’s online coverage of the Israeli-Lebanese war, but after a brief period of time, that story vanished. I did notice one day that the Minnesota Twins had won eight in a row—that was front-page news.

We said our good-byes at the Dammam Airport, and Bob congratulated us on our patience and open-mindedness. The pleasure had been ours, and we’d been gratified by the patience of our hosts and the myriad of kind people (most of whom had minimal English-language skills) who’d gone out of their way to make us feel welcome. We’d received a warmer reception than most Americans routinely give foreigners, certainly, and better than we might expect to encounter most places in Europe. As we flew through the night, I thought of Fisk’s long, sad history of the Middle East, and I longed to get away from it all, to enjoy beer again, to see a movie on the big screen, to smell the green grass and soak in the moderate temperatures of home. The trip had been physically, emotionally, and even spiritually exhausting; I had never been so submerged in another people’s religion in my life. I resolved on numerous occasions to read the Koran but knew that once I left Saudi Arabia for the comforts and distractions of America, I would likely never get around to it.

As the plane descended into Amsterdam, I wondered if I would ever see the Middle East again. I recalled the young man who feared Guantanamo and how he would not allow me to dwell on this fear. I wished that I could see him again, in Detroit or New York or Minneapolis, where I could welcome him and ease his fears of my country, answer his questions, offer him a meal. He’d said: “Please see as much of our country as you can.” Then he and all his friends had offered their hands and added the customary Saudi farewell, “As-Salamu Alaykum”—peace be with you.

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